DRIVE (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)

Danish-born filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, which Iranian-born Hossein Amini adapted from the 2005 novel by James Sallis, revolves around a protagonist either who has no name or whose name is never disclosed. Rather than Ishmael, call him Shane (Shane, George Stevens, 1953), as he also is a loner who drifts into a family, bonds with a young boy and the boy’s mother, and ultimately departs for regions unknown. He is a gentle soul who becomes mad-dog violent when confronted with evil-violent others; this is a clever nihilistic update of Shane, a gunfighter who tries to move beyond his killing past but finds there is too much evil in the world for him to do so. The young man in Drive—unlike Shane, he cannot seriously or appropriately be called a hero—is, like Shane, without any possibility of a place in this world of ours. In the meantime, though, he does all sorts of jobs: stock-car garage mechanic, Hollywood stunt driver, robbery getaway driver-for-hire.
     Former mouseketeer Ryan Gosling, the chameleon-like Canadian whom I named 2010’s best actor (Blue Valentine, Derek Cianfrance), is superb as the anonymous, possibly supernatural driver; he is especially moving in his scenes with 6-year-old Benicio. In his wildest dreams, Alan Ladd could never have negotiated the line between reality and legend, violence and spirituality, with anything like Gosling’s nimbleness and sublime concentration.
     Unfortunately, Winding Refn’s morbid, pseudo-existential crime melodrama is a total piece of crap, among the most vicious, vapid and vacuous movies ever made. It is also dishearteningly derivative, for it baldly “borrows” from the style of David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997); its bone-crunching tension and suspense, in addition to the bursts of mayhem, mimic the Lynch film’s first movement, with a measure of the creepy lyricism of Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), especially on the derivative soundtrack, thrown in. But, whereas Lynch’s intuitive French masterpiece employs this style in pursuit of complex, momentous material (see my blog entry on Lost Highway), Winding Refn employs it for nothing more than audience manipulation and cheap thrills. Similarly, this hack has lavished Newton Thomas Sigel’s gorgeous, reddish-hued color cinematography on the most lurid and trivial subject matter imaginable.
     Winding Refn won the directorial prize at Cannes, and so-so Albert Brooks, as a blade-wielding mobster, drew best supporting actor accolades from the National Society of Film Critics, as well as critics’ groups in New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.

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